There are no words” is an expected—some might say appropriate—response to certain events. After a death, for instance, we often turn silent or speak unusually succinctly, as if something more might try and fail to assuage. When we do venture toward that “something,” the imposition of words on emotions tends to become elliptical, and fails to capture the sentiment underneath.
In Mozambique, or in any other nation where trauma has been sustained over many years, it seems natural that artistic representations might veer intentionally toward the elliptical or the surreal, forms that bend around words and ideas more than they pinpoint them. Factual accounting can also be a kind of reprisal—gun specs, war projections, survival statistics—but civil wars, colonialism, and exile refute static certainty in the same way people and families do. Well-construed surrealism not only masks the real but also enhances what is most difficult to explain.
Fittingly, then, proper nouns for the places and characters in Mia Couto’s The Tuner of Silences change, or are never given in the first place. Couto’s landscape alludes to personal, geographic, and political realities—but the river sounds more alive than the people do, and bullets move in and out of skin. Facts themselves are mutable, Couto suggests, when events change so dynamically. It is neither the country nor its characters that requires exact representation; it is the emotions and thoughts of those characters.
In the novel, a family hides in Jezoosalem, a Mozambican game reserve named by the dictatorial paterfamilias, Silvestre. Jezoosalem is a kind of reverse Eden, a new space at the end of time: instead of a heavenly, untainted place before the advent of sin, it is a region in which to hide, to seek cleansing. Instead of innocence, it is information itself that we glimpse but never capture—tantalizing facts surrounding the history and reality of these characters and the places they came from.
Silvestre remakes the past into an abstraction for his young boys, Ntunzi and Mwanito:
— The world: do you want to know what it’s like? …
He began to sigh, and I began to sigh. Words had returned to him after all, and the light he cast brought me back once more to the firm ground of certainty.
— Well it’s all perfectly simple, children: the world has died, and all that’s left is Jezoosalem.
Later, a Portuguese woman named Marta arrives, seeking reprieve from the chase for her philandering husband. She is the first woman whom Ntunzi and Mwanito see and understand as such—their mother is a faded memory—and she becomes the catalyst for Jezoosalem’s end, showing the boys a rounded world through both her gender (in another twist on Eden, Silvestre has forbidden reference to women in Jezoosalem) and her knowledge about life outside the reserve. Until then, Jezoosalem, perfect in its large and empty spaces, has allowed Silvestre to hide, and hide from, the story of his wife’s sexual violation and suicide, which he partially induced. (Even the reader learns this full history only after the family has left the reserve.) The young boys, the novel’s soul, are held there, rubber-band-like; when Ntunzi attempts to leave he falls to the ground, unable to move forward.
Couto creates a world in which imprecisely drawn characters occupy imprecise locales, and unexplained events wash over us like emotion itself; his style has an elegant way of eliding subjects that cannot be explicated by one-off answers. This is as true for Silvestre’s decision to cast off his wife as it is for the country’s conflict-fraught recent history. In one emblematic moment, as Silvestre lowers Ntunzi into Jezoosalem’s “skeletal pits,” Mwanito asks why they are digging. “It’s just for God to see,” Silvestre replies. “Just for Him to see.” Even as he asks the question, Mwanito knows the answer will be unsatisfying, but he needs the connection the words bring. As Marta later intones with a sage-like wisdom: “Life only happens when we stop understanding it.”
For Couto, who likens his fiction to poetry and positions himself against pure realism, determinate meanings are false for his country. (Besides, he reminds us, literary terms like realism and surrealism are not Mozambican in origin.) Thus, even when writing becomes young Mwanito’s activity of choice, it is a replication of his upbringing: an imprecise activity that points to this elliptical novel itself. It isn’t hard to imagine children elsewhere looking for the same kind of answers in climates of violence and upheaval, and becoming as dissatisfied as these boys are. Still, like listening to an eloquent eulogy, they might find something ineffably satisfying in what the words do manage to say.